In the Russian Middle Ages, where it is hard to distinguish history from legend, there lived a folk hero named Ilya Muromets. After thirty years of motionless seclusion he was called by two pilgrims to become a bogatyr, a sort of Russian knight errant. He encountered the most powerful bogatyr of them all, Svyatogor, who, on his deathbed, bequeathed Ilya his superhuman strength. After many adventures, Ilya and his comrades faced battle with invincible supernatural opponents and were turned to stone and the bogatyrs disappeared from Russian history.

This is a world that music lovers may be aware of via 19th-century Russian composers, but it is not a synopsis of an unknown opera by Rimsky-Korsakov or Borodin but of the programme of Reinhold Glière's Symphony no. 3 in B minor, performed last night by the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra and its principal conductor, Gabriel Feltz. A few of Glière’s works are played from time to time, usually the Harp Concerto or the Concerto for coloratura soprano and orchestra, but although it has had a few advocates over the years, notably Leopold Stokowski, Ilya Muromets is rarely heard in the concert hall. This was the first time the Belgrade Philharmonic had performed it and it is believed to be the work’s Balkans première. What a treat we have been missing!

The symphony calls for a very large orchestra and is unusually long, lasting a little under an hour and a half (including pauses between its four movements). It has a very detailed programme which is surprisingly easy to follow thanks to striking motifs associated with particular characters and scenes. Glière wrote a long and detailed account of the plot. The programme note for the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra's concert included a brief outline plus some helpful indications of some of the features of the symphony – very useful for such an unfamiliar work. As well as having a strong narrative the work has a symphonic cohesion thanks to recurring themes associated with the protagonists and a broad outline that equates to the traditional symphony. This is a relatively early work of Glière’s, first performed in 1912 (the composer lived until 1956). Criticism of his later works for being “conservative” or “old-fashioned” does not apply here. The music is late-Romantic and colourful and occasionally other Russian composers came to mind, but Glière had his own voice and produced a dramatic programme work that surely can stand alongside its near-contemporary Alpine Symphony by Richard Strauss.

In the first movement we were introduced to the brooding atmosphere of medieval Russia and the main characters and motifs of the symphony (horn calls for Ilya, a brass chorale for Svyatogor) with some mighty climaxes. The second movement was the most remarkable of all. Here the hero encounters the brigand Solovei (Nightingale). There is an evocation of the forest but the peaceful pastoral transforms from a place of rest to one of danger. The chirping of the strings suggests insects; the flutes, oboes and horns depict birdsong, but the Nightingale here is one whose piercing woodwind whistle can kill. Almost imperceptibly the sounds of nature are transformed into a long sweeping melody suggestive of another contemporary of Glière’s, Rachmaninov.

In the third movement we are at the court of Vladimir the Great of Kiev for a grand  feast at which Ilya decapitates Solovei. Dazzling exchanges of orchestral colours evoke the pageantry of the Middle Ages with hints of Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov and striking changes of pace. The dramatic finale gave us two exhilarating battle scenes. In the first, Ilya defeats the Tatar hordes and in the second he is defeated and turned to stone. There were flashbacks to earlier scenes and the theme associated with the pilgrims at the beginning of the symphony becomes the one for the invincible warriors.  Even more astonishing was the quiet ending with low instruments predominating.

Feltz and the Belgrade Philharmonic had evidently prepared meticulously. The ever-changing pace was expertly judged and the work never dragged. Instrumental solos were lovingly shaped and emerged perfectly from the body of the orchestra. Feltz had taken us on an amazing journey through a Russian legend. Fortunately we will be able to hear it again: Feltz and the Belgrade Philharmonic are making their first recording together with this astonishing piece.